Bourgeois Enuf 4U?: Rainy Afternoon with Benoît Duteurtre

The life of the serious but non-paid writer can be difficult day-to-day as you struggle to keep focused on what you're "supposed" to be doing.  But sometimes it's all right to trust your own instincts, to trust what you enjoy and realize that when you do something you aren't "supposed" to it might be kind of laughable as procrastination.

My boyfriend's mom once "confessed" to us that she read a lot of Scandinavian mystery novels, rolling her eyes at herself as she did so, whereupon my boyfriend exclaimed,"You're not allowed to say that in that tone of voice! That's not a thing!"

Similarly, I'm "supposed" to be working on a review right now but I spent the day (and by "the day" I mean my work day, at work) reading a short story by Benoît Duteurtre in the collection Drôle de temps about a 30ish film director who attends a wedding at which he suspects people disapprove of him and his work, only to find himself thrust into a nightmarish world where his worst suspicions turn out to be true.  I've read a couple of Duteurtre's other stories, as well as his novel Chemins de fer (featured in the Linguality series), and I've enjoyed all of them to an extent but have been left with an uncomfortable feeling that liking them, if I decided I did like them, would make me not at all hip and cutting-edge but the opposite of that.  There's a certain preciousness that makes me wince at the very idea of approaching social issues so directly in fiction: engaging the thought patterns of the young aspiring businessman or the young artist coming into absurd but predictable conflict with society.  What I mean, specifically for Americans who might need an explanation, is that if this guy was in the U.S. and writing in English, he would be on NPR all the freaking time.  They would want to interview him, plug all his books and get his opinions on things besides.  In France, though, he must be less exceptional, 'cause there's more of that kind of thing.  Americans like their light, humorous social engagement to happen in non-fiction form.  In fiction, someone had better die, otherwise what the heck do you think you're doing, anyway?

As a writer and reader, I confess that I have somewhat bought into this, which is probably why Duteurtre's work, which seems so far to me to be unconventionally cheerful, makes me uncomfortable.  There's plenty of horror involved, but it's all social horror.

As my French has improved, however, and as I flatter myself I've grown at least a little more sensitive to the nuances of the language, I've realized that Duteurtre doesn't engage social issues any more or less seriously or directly than someone like Jonathan Franzen.  It's just that his books are shorter and less family-based and epic.  The Corrections (Franzen) was one of the first "serious" modern social novels I read that I felt a sense of connection with, but in general my sensibilities are not acutely in step with the large-scale societal whoa-ness of Franzen or, say, Zadie Smith.  Or Don DeLillo.  I like things that all of these writers have done and don't necessarily like them less or more than others, but in both reading and writing I'm more comfortable with a smaller scope, like that used by Mary Gaitskill, or Don Lee, or Christine Sneed [/author name vomit], all writers who have engaged social issues in a sparer space.  Duteurtre is one of these, it seems.  He uses the dance of social behavior and the presence of physical objects and locations to reflect what's behind it.  Society, business and commerce are never far away, yet Duteurtre's attention is not going to be directly on these things so much as a parking lot, or pieces of trash.  Whether or not I ultimately end up liking his writing, I'm sure I could learn something from it.  Or it could be that all of this is just to say I'm so anti-family I would rather read about garbage than people's offspring issues.  Grr.

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